If any, careful that none of their good thoughts should be lost, have published their censures of my Essay, with this honour done to it, that they will not suffer it to be an Essay; I leave it to the public to value the obligation they have to their critical pens, and shall not waste my reader’s time in so idle or ill-natured an employment of mine, as to lessen the satisfaction any one has in himself, or gives to others, in so hasty a confutation of what I have written.
There were assuredly skeptics with respect to progress when thosewords were written, and there would be a continuing line of skepticsfrom Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche, through ArthurSchopenhauer, down to Oswald Spengler, W. R. Inge, and Austin Freemanin the early decades of the twentieth century. Only, really, during thelast quarter-century have we recognized those who doubted or hated thechanges in the natural and cultural landscape, which most people deemedprogressive. (Even in the French Enlightenment, as Henry Vyverberg hasshown in his Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment,there were those who looked at past, present and future with but littleif any hope.) No idea, however grand and encompassing, ever capturesthe loyalties of everyone in an age. But even though we acknowledge theskeptics, there is no doubt whatever that the overwhelming majority ofpeople in the nineteenth and early twentieth century embraced faith inhuman progress, with economic and technological advancement thenecessary vis creatrix, and accepted it as a fact of natureand history. "You can't stop progress" had become a universalcolloquialism in this country well before the nineteenth century ended,and that theme, variously stated, served our major scholars andintellectuals as well as our politicians and statesmen.
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§ 16. This was evidently the case of all gentilism; nor hath even amongst jews, christians, and mahometans, who acknowledge but one God, this doctrine, and the care taken in those nations to teach men to have true notions of a God, prevailed so far, as to make men to have the same and the true ideas of him. How many, even amongst us, will be found, upon inquiry, to fancy him in the shape of a man sitting in heaven, and to have many other absurd and unfit conceptions of him? Christians, as well as Turks, have had whole sects owning and contending earnestly for it, and that the deity was corporeal, and of human shape: and though we find few among us who profess themselves Anthropomorphites, (though some I have met with that own it) yet, I believe, he that will make it his business, may find, amongst the ignorant and uninstructed christians, many of that opinion. Talk but with country people, almost of any age, or young people of almost any condition; and you shall find, that though the name of God be frequently in their mouths, yet the notions they apply this name to are so odd, low, and pitiful, that nobody can imagine they were taught by a rational man, much less that they were characters written by the finger of God himself. Nor do I see how it derogates more from the goodness of God, that he has given us minds unfurnished with these ideas of himself, than that he hath sent us into the world with bodies unclothed, and that there is no art or skill born with us: for, being fitted with faculties to attain these, it is want of industry and consideration in us, and not of bounty in him, if we have them not. It is as certain that there is a God, as that the opposite angles, made by the intersection of two straight lines, are equal. There was never any rational creature, that set himself sincerely to examine the truth of these propositions, that could fail to assent to them; though yet it be past doubt that there are many men, who, having not applied their thoughts that way, are ignorant both of the one and the other. If any one think fit to call this (which is the utmost of its extent) universal consent, such an one I easily allow; but such an universal consent as this proves not the idea of God, any more than it does the idea of such angels, innate.